A recent blog in the After the Party Magazine has raised some very pertinent questions about the issue of co-morbidity in alcoholics and addicts seeking recovery via 12 step groups and suggests the extent of this co-morbidity is much higher than may have been anticipated.
This blog raises important issues but ultimately may leave more questions than it answers?
The blog starts “You hear it in 12-step meetings all the time—people who were once on psych meds discovered they didn’t need them after getting sober and doing the steps. Now they’re evangelizing at every meeting in town about how their problem was really just spiritual. Maybe they were never mentally ill to begin with or maybe the steps really did banish their mental illness right out of their brains. But for me, and plenty of others I know, this isn’t the case.”
The author then continues ” If anyone has any questions about psychiatric meds AA has an official stance that’s in a pamphlet called The AA Member—Medications and Other Drugs. ”
I referred to this pamphlet on Monday’s blog Can you be Sober and in Recovery while on Medication?
As I mentioned then the pamphlet appears to be alerting AA members to the reality that certain members “must take prescribed medication for serious medical problems. However, it is generally accepted that the misuse of prescription medication and other drugs can threaten the achievement and maintenance of sobriety”.
As the author notes this pamphlet states ” “No A.A. member should ‘play doctor'; all medical advice and treatment should come from a qualified physician.”
It also states that “Some of us have had to cope with depressions that can be suicidal; schizophrenia that sometimes requires hospitalization; bipolar disorder, and other mental and biological illnesses.
“A.A. members and many of their physicians have described situations in which depressed patients have been told by A.A.s to throw away the pills, only to have depression return with all its difficulties, sometimes resulting in suicide.
“We have heard, too, from members with other conditions, including schizophrenia, bi-polar disorder, epilepsy and others requiring medication, that well-meaning A.A. friends discourage them from taking any prescribed medication. Unfortunately, by following a layperson’s advice, the sufferers find that their conditions can return with all their previous intensity. On top of that, they feel guilty because they are convinced that ‘A.A. is against pills.’ It becomes clear that just as it is wrong to enable or support any alcoholic to become readdicted to any drug, it’s equally wrong to deprive any alcoholic of medication, which can alleviate or control other disabling physical and/or emotional problems.”
The author then suggest that ” roughly 70% people I meet in AA are on meds. A lot people are quiet about it because they don’t want the backlash…”
Is the prevalence of people taking medication in 12 step groups this high? Or is this a sample bias?
Perhaps many of the people I know in AA have simply been keeping quiet about it? I am not convinced that this figure is accurate, based on my own observations?
If this figure is representative then what co-occurring conditions are these recovering people medicating?
There are obviously a host of co-occurring conditions that recovering people suffer from – from physical, such as chronic pain, to epilepsy, to anxiety disorders to depression, bi-polar, borderline personality disorder, post traumatic stress disorder, schizophrenia …in fact the list goes on.
Is it thus reasonable of us in AA and other 12 step groups to expect that all members are medication free or that the 12 steps can treat all co-occurring conditions?
It has been suggested in a AA survey that over 60% of recovering individuals in 12 step groups seek outside professional help for co-occurring difficulties which suggest that the trajectory of alcoholism and addiction is not straightforward and includes other co-occurring problems which may add to the severity of psychological symptoms experienced.
A very pertinent question is whether these co-occurring conditions are parallel problems or are additional problems that affect one’s addiction recovery.
By this I mean if one suffers, as I do, from PTSD, do PTSD symptoms also add to relapse vulnerability, for example. I can say for myself that the two times I have had issues with relapse have been prompted by manifestation of PTSD symptoms, such as flashbacks.
For me, at least, my co-occurring condition of PTSD affects my recovery from alcoholism and substance addiction. It is inseparable – in fact my PTSD and childhood maltreatment has contributed to my addiction. Although it doesn’t necessarily follow that my choice of treatment, e.g. 12 step recovery will straighten out all the factors that contributed to this addiction.
Equally the 12 step and associated fellowship and program for living may help manage this condition too?
I have not relapsed in a decade so the 12 steps etc must be helping with co-occurring conditions as these conditions have to potential to prompt relapse?
I will explain this further, below, in relation to the various sponsors I have had in recovery.
I do not medicate for this condition nor have I sought outside help although I have considered outside help many times. Perhaps I am edging closer to that.
Equally I believe the process of recovery has helped me recover from PTSD, has made me aware of triggers, etc.
How prevalent is PTSD in addiction? Do others suffer in recovery from this co-occurring condition too?
Approximately 35% to 50% of people in addiction treatment programs have a lifetime diagnosis of posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and 25% to 42% have a current diagnosis (Back et al., 2000;Brady, Back, & Coffey, 2004; P. J. Brown, Recupero, & Stout, 1995;Cacciola, Alterman, McKay, & Rutherford, 2001; Dansky et al., 1996;Jacobsen, Southwick, & Kosten, 2001; Mills, Lynskey, Teesson, Ross, & Darke, 2005;Ouimette, Ahrens, Moos, & Finney, 1997).
Is this the case in 12 step groups?
In order to examine the extent of co-morbidity in recovery I will briefly run through some of the sponsors I have had in recovery, and their co-occurring conditions – self acknowledged or not.
First sponsor – bi polar, not medicated, but also treated via outside professional help – accepts that he will occasionally have very dark days as part of his recovery. His choice is not to medicate as he feels it is a chemical straightjacket although he accepts the right of others to take medication for this condition.
Second sponsor – borderline personality disorder – not medicated – has sought professional outside help.
Third sponsor – no co-occurring conditions – but would suggest his religiomania contributes to his absolute conviction that recovering people do not need medication of any sort that God can heal everything.
Fourth and fifth sponsors both PTSD but not fully acknowledged nor treated outside of 12 steps.
All in long term recovery, of 12-30 years.
From this very small survey it is clear that there is a common co-occurrence with other conditions, acknowledged or otherwise. There is also extensive childhood abuse of various types.
All of them have not or do not take medication. They may be in some way also be treated by the 12 steps.
I have also sponsored a person with schizophrenia who needs to take medication because of returning psychosis if he fails to take medication.
What I am saying is that some individuals with obvious co-occurring conditions also choose not to medicate as well and feel their general “recovery” is treated by the steps and fellowship, often together with outside help. Having a co-occurring condition does not mean one automatically takes medication for this condition? Many do not?
This is why I queried the “70%” are on meds above. I do not necessarily disagree that those suffering co-morbid conditions is the majority but would query why so many take medication?
Are some of these on medication assisted treatment to curb urges and cravings too?
In terms of so-called co-occurring disorders such as anxiety and mood disorders such as generalized anxiety disorders (GAD) and major depression (MDD), research has shown that these symptoms often dissipate in the early weeks of recovery.
This had led researchers like Mark Shuckit to call these substance induced disorders and to suggest that co-occurring disorders such as GAD and MDD are distributed in recovery populations as they are in normal population at around 15% prevalence.
This is why I think some 12 steppers are “anti med” as they often see the symptoms of GAD and MDD dissipate in early recovery and thus believe the steps are treating these disorders successfully.
Although these disorders are but temporary substance induced disorders for many, however, for 15%, at least, these conditions of GAD and MDD are possibly what they suffer from too in recovery.
Regardless of that caveat if we add this 15% to up to 50% who suffer PTSD and the possibility of the occurrence of other conditions such as borderline, bi polar, etc we get closer to the 62% figure of AA respondents that an AA survey in 2012 states received some type of treatment or counseling, such as medical, psychological, spiritual, etc., (and 82% of those said it played an important part in their recovery from alcoholism).
Whether these conditions require medication is a matter for the person and their sponsor in discussion with medical professionals and not some layperson “medical expert” as often abounds in AA and other 12 step groups.
The issue here is not simply co-morbidity but whether this co-morbidity is an intrinsic part of the aetiology of addiction from a vulnerability to a relapse factor. In other words, have other conditions meshed into the overall condition of addiction? Can they be treated by the same treatment?
Regardless, they often have to be treated separately.
To conclude it seems that 12 step groups need to appreciate that co-occurring conditions, self acknowledged or not, play an important part in recovery and relapse as well as in the aetiology of addiction.
How effectively the medication used can be dissected from the condition of addiction is still debatable for many?
In short, many feel being on medication impedes full recovery.
How we define full recovery is open to question? Recovery can be measured using many variables related to quality of life. If medication using members feel their lives are steadily improving then who are we to judge?
Equally just because one suffers a condition does not inevitably mean it must be medicated, some of the examples above have “treated” their co-occurring conditions via the 12 step program of recovery.
I think ardent fans of the right to medication should appreciate that there is a valid counter argument – they may have the same rights to their point of view as the author of this blog?
All of us has the right to think as they wish and to express their views also.
Live and Let Live may be apropos, we all have the right to be wrong, Love of others is our code.
Personally speaking if I sponsor, I take it on a case by case basis.
I have had only one sponsee out of 7 who has been on medication.
It is for sponsor, sponsee and family as well as medical professionals to contribute to the debate on continued medication.
My lasting concern, however is the 70% figure cited in this blog. It does not tally with my experience of recovery.
Another part of the AA pamphlet cited also warns,
“Experience suggests that while some prescribed medications may be safe for most nonalcoholics when taken according to a doctor’s instructions, it is possible that they may affect the alcoholic in a different way…”
Again this seems to be alerting us to the question when is medicating actually self medicating?
This has been my main experience with medication, that those taking them do not always look completely sober.
In order to recovery fully perhaps we have to be fully sober first?
I will continue this discussion in Part 2 of this blog when I discuss also whether considering alcoholism purely as a “spiritual malady” complicates this argument.
In the DSM V manual 75% of the disorders contained therein have emotion dysregulation at the centre of their condition. I believe alcoholism and addiction also have although not acknowledged.
Instead DSM states the emotional dysfunction seen in addiction is the result of some of co-morbidites mentioned above. I disagree.
Is it not about time we got our heads together and agreed on what the hell we suffer from?
Isn’t addition an emotional disorder in it’s own right compounded by other co-occurring conditions?
Then we will be in a position to discuss how the 12 steps can treat this condition and related conditions of emotion dysregulation?
The main issue for the blog addressed, is that the author, and many others, cannot understand how a spiritual malady has anything to do with their other conditions, when, in reality, alcoholism is another type of disorder, similar to that with which it often co-occurs .
More on this later…